A land management company will be able to continue its operation in Free Union after a neighbor complained that it was in violation of the Albemarle County zoning ordinance.
The Albemarle County Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday unanimously upheld the county zoning administrator’s decision that Hilliard Estate & Land Management had not violated the ordinance.
Tuesday’s hearing was triggered after the neighbor appealed the initial decision. The complaint was that the company was operating from a new building with no zoning clearance.
“I do not get anything from today’s presentation by the appellants that makes me have any reason to doubt the zoning administrator’s decision then, or now,” board member David Bowerman said. “It’s pretty clear to me that I think we should uphold the zoning administrator because this is over; it’s been over.”
In July, Amelia McCulley, then-county zoning administrator, said in an official letter of determination that HELM is an agricultural services operation, and is therefore permitted by-right in the county’s rural area.
Business owner H. Carter Hillard is leasing the property on Free Union Road from John and Mary Scott Birdsall.
Agriculture services described in the letter included “bush hogging, tractor work, custom farming, pasture renovation and maintenance, landscape maintenance and mowing of entire farms, fencing and other farm and land management related activities.”
The letter said landscape maintenance is an incidental use accessory to the business.
Hilliard applied for a farm building permit that was issued in January 2018. Three zoning complaints were filed shortly after, alleging that a business was operating from a new building with no approved zoning clearance.
County staff investigated the complaints, performing a site inspection and interviewing Hilliard on the property.
McCulley, who is now the county’s deputy director of community development, sent an email to the complainant that staff found no violations.
“Criticizing the zoning investigation doesn’t change the decision that was made,” McCulley said. “Bringing up concerns such as traffic generated by this use, while may be concerning to people, are not relevant to the use decision and to this appeal.”
She said that if HELM was engaged in residential and commercial landscaping, “that evidence should be pretty clear and easy to find.”
“A 135 horsepower tractor and bush hogs with a 15-foot-wide cut are not associated with serving residential and commercial, this type of equipment serves agricultural operations,” McCulley said.
Susan Goings and her husband Rick, the former executive chairman and CEO of Tupperware Brands, filed a complaint and the appeal.
Goings said they had evidence that landscape maintenance was a significant portion of HELM’s operations. She gave the board photos of HELM trucks and trailers with lawn mowers, which is what she said neighbors see leaving the property.
She also said that the HELM website had changed and removed “landscaping” and that advertising prior to the county’s determination had focused on the landscaping portion of the business.
“All of these things, even their own actions, tell us that they know it’s a landscape maintenance business,” she said. “They’re trying to use some fancy language to call it something else, but if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.”
Assistant County Attorney Richard DeLoria said that, at this point, the letter of determination is final and cannot be appealed.
During the public hearing, around 15 people spoke, including other concerned residents and clients of HELM.
Jimmy Hazel, who said he is a county resident and HELM client, said he strongly supports the business.
“I use HELM for many activities on an approximately 300 acres licensed shooting preserve in Greene County, and I use Hillard Management because they do have a 135 horsepower tractor and a very expensive no-till planter, which is not cost effective for someone like me to purchase,” he said.
Reynolds Cowles, who said he also owned land HELM has worked on, said he has used HELM for special projects and equipment that he doesn’t maintain.
“We also use them for forestry projects on our property; they don’t cut any grass, they don’t bush-hog any, but we bring in their large disk for when we need to renovate a field,” he said. “No question to us, they are agricultural services.
James Board said he lives a quarter mile from HELM, and is “totally against this business being located in this area.”
“This business will change, what will remain permanent is the community will be stuck with the traffic, noise and all the inconvenience that comes from living near what appears from firsthand evidence to be a landscape maintenance company,” he said.
Other residents were concerned that there was no public hearing or notification to neighbors about HELM. Neither is required by the county for the type of administrative approval HELM received.
“None of us knew about any of this; why would we need to not have light on it if in fact it was the right kinds of things?,” Rick Goings said.
The Goings and their attorney said the county should ask for financial records to help show what HELM’s business does.
Board member Marcia Joseph, the newest Board of Zoning Appeals member, said the letter that stands allows HELM to have the “wiggle room” to do some landscaping work.
“I don’t think financials are going to tell us much about how it’s subordinate,” she said.